Child soldiers in the American Civil War

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William Black, drummer boy for the Union

A remarkable[editorializing] amount of young boys (males 17 and younger) were involved in the American Civil War.[1] It is estimated that between 250,000 and 420,000 young boys were in the military, either as soldiers, drummers, etc. for both the Union and the Confederacy.[1] It is estimated that 100,000 Union soldiers were under 15 years old.[2]

Given the large number of young men in the American Civil War, compared to the number of older men, one author stated that it “might have been called The Boys’ War.”[3]

Reasons for joining[edit]

When the surrender of Fort Sumter was announced, men and boys of all ages on both sides of the conflict were eager to enlist. Abraham Lincoln initially only called for 90-day enlistments.[4] However, after the Union army was driven out of Richmond in the disastrous Peninsular campaign, and the Rebel Army began to march on to Washington, Lincoln issued a call for three hundred thousand three-year volunteers.[5]

Young boys had many of the same motives for joining the military as their adult counterparts did. In the North, young boys felt a desire to set the South straight.[1] In the South, young boys wanted to repel the North, whom they viewed as a hostile invader.[1]

A key difference between young boys’ and adults was their attitude towards slavery: in general, young boys on both sides had neutral feelings towards slavery.[1] Thus, few were motivated to fight for it or against it.[1]

By and large, the most popular reason young boys joined the military in order to escape what they viewed as a dull life on the farms.[6] Nearly all dreamed of coming home as heroes. Almost none imagined the conflict would drag on as long as it did.[1]

Methods of enlistment[edit]

A powder monkey on a Union vessel, circa. 1864

Although the official minimum enlistment age was 18, there were various ways boys got around this.

First, the boys’ appearance often fooled recruiters. It is fairly common, especially for young teenage boys, to appear much older than they are. This trick was even easier during the chaos that often occurred at recruiting stations, when new units were hastily formed.[1]

Second, it was easy to lie about one’s age, especially given the fact that modern methods of identification (social security, driver’s license, computer databases) did not exist.[1] Further, recruiters were anxious to fill recruitment quotas. So, even though they were required to certify on the enlistment papers that they judged the volunteer to be of lawful age,[5] they often turned a blind eye to an underage recruit.[1] Such recruitment passivity increased as the manpower on both sides dwindled and both sides were desperate for more help.[6]

Third, some underage boys were able to enlist with the endorsement of an adult.[1] Ned Hutter, sixteen years old, joined the Confederate Army in Mississippi. His father vouched for Ned’s work ethic and shooting ability. The recruiter then accepted Ned into the unit.[1]

Despite such workarounds, many other boys joined the military legitimately by signing up for non-combat positions.[1] Many such youths signed up as musicians (such as drummer, bugler, flautist).[1] There were places for 40,000 such positions in the Union Armies alone.[3] They often performed other tasks, such as carrying canteens, bandages, and stretchers, to assist surgeons and nurses with the wounded; relaying orders on the battlefield; and at least a few picked up rifles and participated in the fighting.[6]



Perhaps the most common complaint of boy soldiers during the Civil War was the lack of food.[1] This is because the process for keeping an army fed relied heavily on the delicately perfect timing of many factors, including gathering, loading, and transporting food.[1] If any of these processes were delayed, or if any miscommunications occurred, it could be days or weeks before the army was fed.[1]

Hardtack was a staple food item, to the boys’ chagrin: "After we had been in the field a year or two the call, ‘Fall in for your hard-tack!’ was leisurely responded to by only about a dozen men…. Hard-tack was very hard. This I attributed to its great age, for there was a common belief among the boys that our hard-tack had been baked long before the beginning of the Christian era. This opinion was based upon the fact that the letters 'B.C.' were stamped on many, if not, indeed, all the cracker-boxes."[6]

Other staples included pork, coffee, and bread.[6]

Starving boys often devised intricate ways to sneak out of their camps and forage for food. They found food by either gathering it from the local land, or stealing it from local farmers.[1] In the Union Army, some soldiers initially objected to this practice as violating the Ten Commandments. But as the war wore on, it became evident that “such tender regard for Rebel property” strengthened the enemy and weakened the Union cause.[5] Consequently, “conscientious scruples stepped to the rear, and the soldier who had them at the end of the war was a curiosity indeed.”[5] Commanding officers forbade foraging, but often connived it and shared in the spoils.[5]


Clothing was a crude procedure for both armies, especially towards the beginning of the war.[1] Once colors and patterns were agreed upon, uniforms were more easily standardized.[1] However, young boys often found themselves in uniforms that were too big.[1] Additionally, many boys continued to grow after being assigned a uniform, and many outgrew their uniforms.[1]

Some units did not have the resources to provide uniforms to young boys, so many had to wear their own clothes from home.[1]

As a result, many young boys often resorted to stealing uniforms from deceased soldiers, or bartered food and supplies in order to have their clothes tailored by locals.[1]


Excitement over enlistment swiftly gave way to the boring routines of camp life and marches.

"Day after day and night after night did we tramp along the rough and dusty roads ‘neath the most broiling sun with which the month of August ever afflicted a soldier; thro’ rivers and their rocky valleys, over mountains—on, on, scarcely stopping to gather the green corn from the fields to serve us for rations…. During these marches the men are sometimes unrecognizable on account of the thick coverings of dust which settle upon their hair, eye-brows and beard, filling likewise the mouth, nose, eyes, and ears."[6]

Death, injury, and capture[edit]

Young boys were not spared from the horrors of war that their adult counterparts faced, including violent deaths, injuries (and poor medical treatment), and appalling living conditions when captured.[1]

Young soldiers’ romantic illusions about military glory evaporated under the harsh realities of combat. They suffered hunger, fatigue, and discomfort, and gradually lost their innocence in combat. Every aspect of soldiering comes alive in their letters and diaries: the stench of spoiled meat, the deafening sound of cannons, the sight of maimed bodies, and the randomness and anonymity of death.[6]

The accounts of young Union prisoners at Confederate prison camps are especially harrowing. Sixteen-year-old Michael Dougherty was shocked by the sight of “different instruments of torture: stocks, thumb screws, barbed iron collars, shackles, ball and chain. Our prison keepers seemed to handle them with familiarity.” William Smith, a fifteen-year-old soldier in the 14th Illinois Infantry, was shaken by the physical appearance of prisoners at Andersonville in Georgia, a “great mass of gaunt, unnatural-looking beings, soot-begrimes, and clad in filthy trousers."[6]

Michael Dougherty was the only member of his company to survive imprisonment at Andersonville Prison in Georgia.[6]

"No one, except he was there in the prison can form anything like a correct idea of our appearance about this time. We had been in prison nearly five months and our clothing was worn out. A number were entire naked; some would have a ragged shirt and no pants; some had pants and no shirt; another would have shoes and a cap and nothing else. Their flesh was wasted away, leaving the chaffy, weather beaten skin drawn tight over the bones, the hip bones and shoulders standing out. Their faces and exposed parts of their bodies were covered with smoky black soot, from the dense smoke of pitch pine we had hovered over, and our long matted hair was stiff and black with the same substance, which water would have no effect on, and soap was not to be had. I would not attempt to describe the sick and dying, who could now be seen on every side."[6]

Offences and punishments[edit]

Young boys also committed the same offenses as their adult counterparts, and their commanding officers did not spare them from punishment.[5]

Offenses included:

  • “Back talking” (i.e. addressing a superior with insolence) or refusal to follow military etiquette.
  • Drunkenness.
  • Absence from camp without leave.
  • “Turbulence after taps” (i.e. causing a commotion after lights-out).
  • Sitting while on guard
  • Gambling

Punishments included:

  • Hard labor.
  • Carrying a log by oneself.
  • Forcing the offender to stand on a barrel for an entire day.
  • Confinement to the “guard-tent.” A veteran of the Civil War observed that this punishment “may not be though a very severe penalty; still, the men did not enjoy it, as it imposed quite a restriction on their freedom to be thus pent up and cut off from the rest of their associates.”
  • Confinement in a box.
  • Lashing the offender to a wheel.
  • Wearing a board describing the offense.
  • Being tied up by one’s thumbs.
  • “Drumming out of camp” (usually for cowardice). This punishment involved stripping the offender of his equipments and uniform, and marching him through the camp with a guard on either side, four soldiers behind, and a fife and drum corps bringing up the rear. This gave the rest of the army the chance to publicly humiliate the offender.
  • Death by firing squad (usually for desertion). Abraham Lincoln was so reluctant to approve the death penalty that he became famous for his last-minute pardons and reprieves. Therefore, Generals typically wanted an execution carried out before Lincoln would review it.[4]

Notable examples[edit]

Elisha Stockwell, Jr.[7] He joined the Union Army at age fifteen. Since this was against his father’s wishes, he tricked his father by claiming that he was going to a Dutch dance. He told his sister he’d be back for dinner, but didn’t return home for two years. He was in the Union Army for the entire duration of the war, participating in battles such as the Battle of Shiloh, the Siege of Vicksburg, and Sherman’s March to the Sea. He survived the war and wrote a memoir of his wartime experiences. His story is cited extensively in the awarding-winning children’s book, The Boys’ War.[1] A short film about his life, The Elisha Stockwell Story, was released in 2012.[citation needed]

The most celebrated schoolboy performance of the war was the baptism of fire of the Virginia Military Institute Cadet Corps at the Battle of New Market. The corps was 215 strong when it reached the battle. The boys were eighteen or under (tradition has it that some were only fourteen).[3]

Washington and Lee University provided a company of sixty-four boys in the first days of the Civil War. Their average age was about seventeen, and their average weight was about 130 pounds. Of a total of sixty-five present in the two battles of manassas, twenty-three were killed or wounded. In the forty battles in which it fought with the 4th Virginia Infantry, the company lost 100 dead or wounded, and forty-six captured, of a total strength of 150 from recruitments.[3]

John Clem

John Clem[8] joined the 22nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment as a drummer boy at 11 years of age, (Murphy) and became a mounted orderly on the staff of George Henry Thomas.[3] At the Battle of Chickamauga, he defiantly killed a Confederate colonel who ordered his surrender. For this, he was promoted to Sergeant. Clem went on to become a career soldier, retiring in 1915 with the rank of Brigadier General.[1]

Arthur MacArthur Jr. From Wisconsin, he failed to get into West Point in 1861, and instead wangled a place as adjutant of the 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment at the age of seventeen, and was promoted to colonel (and nicknamed "The Boy Colonel") a year later. He commanded a regiment at the bloody battles of Resaca and Franklin, and was wounded three times. He went into the regular army, and retired in 1909 as the last lieutenant general of his era. He was the father of General Douglas MacArthur.

William Black. The Civil War’s youngest wounded soldier on record, he was twelve when his left hand and arm were shattered by an exploding shell.[1][6]


Federal Soldiers:

  • 2,000,000+ were 21 or younger
  • 1,000,000 were 18 or younger
  • 200,000 were sixteen or under
  • 100,000 were fifteen or under
  • 300 were 13 or under—most of these were fifers or drummers, but regularly enrolled, and sometimes fighters. Twenty-five were ten or under.[3]

These numbers are staggering compared to the number of older men:

  • 46,000 were 25 or older
  • 16,000 up to the age of 44


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab Murphy, Jim (1990). The boys' war : Confederate and Union soldiers talk about the Civil War. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN 0395664128. 
  2. ^ Davies, Gareth. "Boy soldiers of the Civil War: Haunting photos reveal the children as young as eight who were forced into battle and the 11-year-old who shot an officer dead and was promoted to sergeant". Daily Mail. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Houhlihan, Burke Davis. Drawings by Raymond (1982). The civil war: strange & fascinating facts (1st ed.). New York, NY: Fairfax Press. ISBN 0-517-371510. 
  4. ^ a b Freedman, Russell (1987). Lincoln : a photobiography. New York, N.Y.: Clarion Books. ISBN 0-89919-380-3. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f Reed, John D. Billings ; illustrated by Charles W. (1981). Hardtack and coffee, or, The unwritten story of Army life. [Alexandria, Va.]: Time-Life Bks. ISBN 0-8094-4210-8. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Children and the Civil War". 
  7. ^ Abernethy, Byron R., ed. (1985). Private Elisha Stockwell, Jr., sees the Civil War. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0806119217. 
  8. ^ Patterson, Michael Robert. "John Lincoln Clem, Major General, United States Army".